Preamble: Please note that this article contains material that is at best culturally insensitive, and at worst deplorable and racist. You may not wish to read further. In presenting Emily Murphy’s views, my point is to help uncover, analyze, and contribute to a critical interrogation of our troubled history of colonialism. An influential writer and settler women’s rights activist, her opinions had weight and authority. She worked for the dispossession of Indigenous people, and for the development by settlers of their land and resources. Murphy did so through her profoundly negative representations of Indigenous peoples, particularly women, and through her work to strengthen the presence and power of settler women. She worked to legitimize white settler society, and to buttress a particular racial and gender order. In this short article my focus is on Murphy’s simultaneous promotion of dispossession and development and votes for settler women, and how her cultural constructions of Indigenous people assisted in these goals. To do so, I think it is important to be candid about the views she conveyed in her writing.[i]
A main theme of my recent book Ours By Every Law of Right and Justice: Women and the Vote in the Prairie Provinces, is that most activists for this cause were settler suffragists who promoted and celebrated the settler colonial project. Settler suffragists frequently called on legislators to recognize their right to vote by virtue of their equal work in colonizing the West, claiming their full partnership in the work with settler men, a narrative that of course excluded Indigenous peoples and in fact displayed their contribution to marginalizing them. They often pointed out that their work contributed to the successful settler domination of the West in crucial other ways – by giving birth to the next generation who would carry on the work of the first settlers completing the attempted replacement of Indigenous people. With the vote, they were going to strengthen the cause of settler colonialism, and bring these maternal qualities, their concern for the health of the next settler generations, into the political sphere.
To me a critical context to understanding the settler suffrage movement is the ongoing process of the marginalization, removal, and disempowerment of Indigenous people, a process that was active in the suffrage campaign era and beyond.
To me a critical context to understanding the settler suffrage movement is the ongoing process of the marginalization, removal, and disempowerment of Indigenous people, a process that was active in the suffrage campaign era and beyond. This process did not end in the 1880s with the clearing of the plains and starvation policies of the Canadian government; it was just getting started, and it was never entirely successful. There were many lines of attack, including residential schools and diminishing their land base, particularly when the land was valuable. The most prosperous agricultural reserve in the West, St. Peter’s north of Winnipeg, a settlement nearly one hundred years old, was illegally and fraudulently surrendered in 1907, after years of settler pressure to remove the residents, who were unwillingly removed to the Interlake region and obliged to start all over again on the Peguis Reserve. There was similar loss of reserve land, solemnly promised in treaties, all along the main line of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), wherever reserve land was seen as valuable to white settlers for agriculture or grazing. There was continued contest over land and resources as Indigenous claims to the land were eroded further and further, and settlers claimed exclusive possession. As Adele Perry has written about in Aqueduct the rapidly growing city of Winnipeg solved its drinking water problem by dispossessing Indigenous people of their land and safe drinking water – this too was just at the time of the suffrage campaign. We are here to stay, said the settler, including Emily Murphy, we need all these resources, and can put them to better use, and you must fade away.
While Ours By Every Law highlights the work of Emily Murphy for the suffrage cause in the Alberta chapter, here I want to delve further into her views on Indigenous peoples with a focus on her publications from 1902 and 1903, and her years in Swan River, Manitoba from 1904-7, described in her 1910 book Janey Canuck in The West. On a four-month tour of the West in 1902, Murphy became fascinated with the prospects and progress of the prairies, and contemptuous of the rights and presence of Indigenous peoples, though she approved and applauded the work of the residential schools. The main points of her publications about and from the West were to boost settlement, attract more settler women (preferably of British stock), extoll the resources of the West, and to insist that the Indigenous people were dwindling and sad remnants of the past with no place in the future, unless they changed their ways through residential schools, and even then they would likely not live up to standards. These issues were not marginal to Murphy, they were central. In her first publications about the West, “new immigrants” from central Europe, whom she later scathingly deprecated, appear almost not at all. She focused her condemnation on Indigenous peoples, seeing no future for them in their own land that she described as a place of unbounded opportunities and resources for settlers.
Author Emily (Ferguson) Murphy wrote under the pen name “Janey Canuck” and she was a well-published author and journalist before she moved to Edmonton in 1907. It was here that she became most active in her work for the cause of settler women’s legal and political rights. She and her husband Arthur invested in land in the city of Edmonton and district, and in coal mines, while Arthur remained involved with the Anglican Church. Murphy was appointed a magistrate in Edmonton in 1916, though she had no formal legal education. It was in Edmonton that she developed her interest in eugenics. She advocated the sterilization of the people she considered “unfit”, seeking to root out the “feeble minded,” particularly among recent immigrants. She championed what she called the superior Northern races and attacked Asian and other settlers she called “foreign” and dangerous to the “race.” She initiated, and gathered four other supporters who formed Alberta’s “Famous Five” who won the 1929 Person’s Case. Murphy was determined to gain recognition for settler women as persons with full citizenship rights. Murphy’s work with that case, and in the cause of eugenics are well known. In her publications, deprecating Indigenous peoples strengthened her claims for personhood and votes for settler women. Jennifer Henderson has published excellent work on Murphy and her “race making” with a focus on her fixation with “foreigners”. Murphy’s work on the drug trade resulted in the 1922 book The Black Candle, that targeted and condemned Chinese immigrants. Convinced of the superiority of the northern, Nordic “race,” Murphy insisted that “The best peoples of the world have come out of the north, and the longer they are away from the boreal regions in such proportion do they degenerate.” She deplored immigrants from Asia, and central or southern Europe. But Murphy’s attitudes toward Indigenous people, her work in the interests of settler colonialism, are less well known, as is her published “impressions” from her 1902 tour of the West, and the fact that she and her husband were located (though briefly) in Swan River and profited immensely from the land and timber they acquired and sold.
The daughter of prosperous land-owning parents, Emily Gowan Ferguson was born in 1868 in Cookstown, Ontario. Her parents Isaac Ferguson and Emily Gowan were Anglicans and Conservatives. Both were of Irish ancestry with Isaac born in Ireland. Emily Gowan was the daughter of a prominent Ontario journalist, farmer, politician, and Orangeman, O. R. Gowan. The children, including Emily were educated at top Ontario boarding schools; three of her brothers became lawyers and one was appointed a judge in Ontario in 1916, the same year she was appointed a magistrate in Edmonton. In 1887, Emily married fellow Ontarian and Anglican cleric Arthur Murphy, and they had four daughters, though one died at a young age. The Ontario locations of her youth and early married years were on the land of the Anishinaabe who have a rich and ancient history in Simcoe County, and who have survived despite powerful pressures and challenges from imperial projects, missionaries and the Canadian government.
The Murphys first came west in 1902, spending a week as guest missionaries to settlers in Winnipeg, where Arthur preached and Emily led the young people and their mothers in Bible study. They also took a four-month tour of the West by rail. They had a “short mission” at southwestern Manitoba Elkhorn Industrial School under the management of the Department of Indian Affairs, in collaboration with the Anglican Church. Principal A.E. Wilson wrote that “This was their first real insight into Indian work.” The school was established in 1888 by Principal Wilson’s father E.F. Wilson, founding Principal of the Shingwauk Indian Residential School in Ontario. The school first opened as the Washakada Home for Girls, and the Kasota Home for Boys. Wilson Sr. first visited the West in the summer of 1885 and he explained in a 1915 lecture that he visited the camps of the “wild heathen Indians of the prairies,” and “saw in what a wild condition they were living, with no one to teach them, their children uncared for and growing up in vice and ignorance.”
Murphy’s 1902 article ‘Indian Children at Home,” about the Elkhorn School was her first publication about the West. Despite the title, she championed the virtues of in fact taking children away from their homes and families and teaching them settler Christian values, routines and codes of conduct through sport, music, domestic work, farming and trades. She particularly admired the transformation of the girls subjected to the regimen at the school: “A freshly recruited girl from the Reserve is not always promising material, she is often taken from a hut or tepee… She is wretchedly ignorant of the simplest sanitary laws and the yoke of restraint lies heavily on her. Very often her vocabulary seems restricted to the words ‘I dunno’ or ‘I won’t’.” For Murphy, these girls required “years of gentle and refining influences.” They were not good candidates for personhood.
A description of a visit to the “sick rooms” was complimentary of the work of Mrs. Wilson, spouse of the principal A.E.Wilson, as she had lost any “race prejudice” and only “saw the needs and latent possibilities of her dusky wards.” Murphy was struck by Mrs. Wilson’s “affectional force” and not the fact that a student was gravely ill in the “well equipped” sick room. Murphy wrote “In one room an Indian youth lay dying. ‘You set your heart on a promising Indian boy,’ said little Mrs. Wilson, ‘then you notice dark streaks under his eyes and he does not eat. In six months we lay him in our little cemetery. He just fades away.’” The schools assisted to combat TB and did not spread the disease in Murphy’s view, “for nearly all the children carry its taint in their system, but sanitary surroundings, nourishing food, warm clothing and regular habits are working wonders in combatting its dread advance.”
In one of the articles in the 1903 series discussed below, Murphy wrote of a second visit to this school, and praised the church and state who together were giving each student “a chance to take on a new and clean civilization, and to earn his bread by the sweat of his brow like other people. They are endeavoring to train him [sic] in a love of honest labor and a dislike of pauperism. He [sic] must not only be taught to pray, but to work. The Bible and the plough are the complements of one another.” These words of praise for the work of the schools also divulge Murphy’s views of Indigenous youth; in her opinion they were not clean, did not know about honest labour, and were content with “pauperism.” While in a later paragraph she declared that “The Indian is not lazy,” she made it clear that they were not up to the kind of work the “white man has introduced.” Their expertise in hunting and fishing did not prepare them for farming and industry, so their “progress must of necessity be slow.”
The school had 87 students the year of the Murphys’ mission, the majority of whom were from St. Peter’s (44) and other fairly distant locations, with the exception of 11 Dakota students from Oak River. Murphy noted that few of the students at Elkhorn were “full-blooded Indians,” but she believed “the half-blood is worth saving. He [sic] is amenable to the same laws as we are…Like the white man, too, he [sic] is subject to the laws of nature, and the fittest will survive, and the weakest will decrease, go down and out.” Her commitment to social Darwinsim and the notion of the survival of only the “fittest” was clear at this time, and would strengthen over the years to justify colonialism, racism, and eugenics. That the “half-blood” was worth saving meant the “full-blood” was not.
The “greatest difficulty” Murphy identified in this educational work was the “handling” of the young graduates, and she did not think they should return to reserves. She wrote that their “training has tended to off-set the habits, weaknesses and ill-regulated passions of the Indians. This being the case it is not wisdom to send them back to their reserves and herd them there, for no Indian can leave the Reserve without the permission of the agent. The tendency is to destroy their energy and independence and teaches them pauperism.” Instead, Murphy argued, “we should push them out and let them work, paying them for their labor like a white man, leaving the collection of rations to the aged and infirm.”
Murphy made little mention of the academic education the students received; she approved of the emphasis was on manual training. For the boys there was farming, gardening, carpentry, painting, bootmaking, and baking. The girls were taught sewing, cooking, housework, laundry work, knitting, and crocheting. There was also “moral” and religious training. This would have been a far cry from the education Emily Murphy had received at Bishop Strachan School in Toronto. There was an emphasis at Elkhorn on sports such as curling and football, and Murphy approved of fostering a love of sports, as they developed character: “To carry a football down the field past all his antagonists, and to send it spinning through the goal, requires courage, self-reliance and strenuousness. The tendency is also to develop in the boys a sense of fair play and a passion for justice. The Indian who can run up against a white rival in on the field and hold his own, will be all the better for it when he comes to face him as a competitor in the sterner affairs of life.”
In a series of articles in The National Monthly of Canada in 1903, Murphy wrote under the name Emily Ferguson, her detailed “Impressions of Janey Canuck at Home,” that chronicled her tour of the West. She had just published the book The Impressions of Janey Canuck Abroad, about the family’s experiences in England. “Impressions of Janey Canuck at Home,” has never been published as a book, unlike her other books that began as serialized articles. Murphy praised their first stop in the West, Winnipeg, as “the golden gate to an immense and wealthy country,” and as “a place of big ideas that are rapidly materializing.” Main Street was “indubitably one of the finest in the world.” The (settler) men were “strong in brawn and brain” and the “Winnipeg maiden[’s]… glowing well-moulded body conveys an impression of graceful strength.” These promising settler youths were contrasted with the Indigenous “hangers-on of civilization.” The Murphys were in Winnipeg on treaty day when annuities were paid so they had the “opportunity of closely observing” Indigenous peoples. Murphy’s central impression is one that she declared in books that were to follow: “Yet the Indian is indubitably on the road to extinction. He [sic] has run against the sharp point of destiny. His [sic] brain and nerve are too soft for our highly complex civilization, and so he [sic] shrivels. Disease, hereditary and acquired, indolence, disappointment and starvation, are decimating them rapidly. Whiskey too, is doing its deadly work.”
Murphy tempered her remarks slightly by describing the “fine looking” Chief Asham from St. Peter’s, a “full-blooded Cree,” a convert to Christianity, who let her, “a white squaw” walk ahead of him when they crossed streets, suggesting a non-convert would not show women such respect. He was a “Cicero of the wilds” who spoke of “the burdens, hopes and tragedies of his people.” Murphy provided no detail on the Chief’s speech, but it is likely William Asham was objecting to the land grabbers who for years were trying to dispossess and remove the St. Peter’s people and were soon to be successful. Asham led the protest against the illegal surrender. Murphy ended this section only with “As we listened to the story, we felt never could nobler lance be lifted than in the redressing of the wrongs which our countrymen have brought on the Red Man.” If she understood anything about the specific nature of the “wrongs,” she did not share these with her readers.
At Victoria, British Columbia, Murphy scathingly condemned the “loutish ‘fish’ Indians of no very great agreeable physiognomy.” It was a mistake to call a “Siwash Indian” “noble”, she wrote: “He [sic] is not noble and looks competent of smashing to smithereens all the Ten Commandments, except the one that says something about doing no manner of work.” She continued in this manner with even more cruel and mean observations, such as their “skin is the smoky tan of a kippered herring,” and they did not display the “reserve of manner” often accredited to them, writing that “the only Reserve the Siwash possesses is the one staked out by the Government.” These observations of a sad, sorry, and dying people were juxtaposed with lavish description of the future potential of the West, where “unborn millions will turn their feet to this land that has lain idle since the world has known it.”
In 1904, the Murphys decided to make the West their home, moving to Swan River, Manitoba. While it is often said that they moved West because of Arthur’s delicate health after he became ill with typhoid fever and thus sought a more healthy life, it seems more likely they were wishing to take advantage of the investment opportunities they had scouted out on their 1902 trip. In 1903 their beloved six year old daughter had died of diphtheria so they likely were also motivated to get away and start afresh.
In Treaty Four territory, Swan River had a rich and deep history. It was the ancient home of Saulteaux and Cree people and Métis who hunted, fished, kept gardens, and pursued employment with the HBC at Fort Pelly. The Swan River Agency by 1900 consisted of the Coté, Key, and Keesickoose Reserves, and a fishing reserve at the mouth of Shoal River. Though their reserves were solemnly granted through Treaty Four, they were not immune however from the pressure to surrender land. The Key Band for example was pressured to surrender some of their land in 1903, when they refused, and again in 1908-9 when they were persuaded to surrender 17 sections.
Swan River was to have been at the centre of settler authority and institutions. In 1874, the newly formed North West Mounted Police made their headquarters nearby, and it was to be the territorial capital where the first Lieutenant-Governor David Laird was posted. The original route of the CPR was supposed to pass right through. The telegraph reached Swan River in 1876. While this importance was short-lived, Swan River still had its appeals to settlers, speculators, and investors. It was awash in timber with the Porcupine forest to the northwest and the Duck Mountains to the southeast. Settlers began to pour in around 1898 when the Canadian Northern Railway (CNR) pushed its way north from Dauphin. Timber was a valuable commodity, required for the buildings, fuel and fencing of farmers on the plains and for the construction industry in the cities.
Emily was not involved in suffrage causes while living in Swan River. She wrote and published book reviews, and worked on her book Janey Canuck in the West (1910) which is mostly about Swan River (though she called it Poplar Bluff). She assisted with the establishment of a cottage hospital in that town. She was also involved in family enterprises and investments. Their main investments were in timber berths and real estate speculation. Before they moved to Swan River, they had acquired a timber berth claim and soon acquired more. They had a five-mile square berth on the south slopes of the Porcupine Mountains. They apparently did very well in the lumber business, selling one cut for $35,000 and another for $85,000.00. The equivalent of $85,000 today is $2,320,000.00. One berth was sold to the wealthy Ashdowns of Winnipeg. The work of harvesting the forests of Manitoba was told in detail in Janey Canuck in the West. The frontispiece to her book may look like a charming winter drive in the country but in fact they were off to inspect their timber berth. Emily Murphy was a partner with her husband in these enterprises and was far from a disinterested onlooker. They are continually thrilled at the dollar signs they see in their future and the vast resources they could own. Off in the forest near Swan River her husband says to her “This is our own log road and these are all your own trees – miles of them.”
In her publications, Murphy emphasized the untapped resources of the West and the money to be made from timber, wheat, and coal. While she loved the wildness of the prairies and forests, the wildflowers on uncultivated land, the abundant fruit and game, she advocated for cutting down the trees, mining the resources, hunting all the game, and cultivating every inch. Talking about dispossessing the Doukhobors of their land she wrote “The land which the Government allotted to them is about to be thrown open to settlers. The Government is wholly justified in this action. It is neither wise nor fair to have a large area of country fallow and unproductive while other people need it.”
Murphy wrote about the obsession with real estate in Swan River, that she obviously shared with her husband, writing that “everybody–literally everybody–is in real estate.” This included her husband, though an Anglican cleric who should have been disinterested in the material world of gain and possessiveness. Aside from their timber berth, Arthur Murphy purchased 4,000 acres of land in the Melfort (Saskatchewan) area in 1905 speculating along the route of the soon to be built Canadian National Railway. His brother Captain A.W. Murphy was also involved in land speculation in this area at Star City. In 1906, Rev. Murphy formed the Canadian Real Estate Co, “capitalized at $5,500,000.00” an enormous sum at that time, the equivalent of nearly $154 million today. The company was described in the Melfort Moon as “buying up a lot of land along both sides of the CNR paying cash for same, and … [disposing] of it to settlers on the crop payment plan.” Murphy purchased 4 farms for a Winnipeg syndicate in 1906, was somehow associated with the National Trust Co., was involved in business with the firm Ashdown and Bossons and with entrepreneur Pat Burns, later of Alberta fame. In 1906, the “Rev. Arthur Murphy” advertised in the Swan River Star that he had 21 quarter sections of choice land for sale on easy terms of payment. He was a participant in a meeting at Swan River “in the interests of settling the Valley” where he gave a brief speech “as a real estate speculator.” He also however, continued to work as an Anglican cleric in Swan River and surrounding small settlements.
At this time the Swan River Board of Trade was promoting their “Garden of the Canadian West,” in a pamphlet which may have been written by Emily Murphy (the author is anonymous) as it contains her dashes of humour, clever wording, and quotes from Francis Bacon. According to the 1907 pamphlet, eight years earlier this was a “land unknown, ‘a waste heritage,’ in so far as the white man was concerned…” and it now boasted schools, banks, churches, elevators, saw mills, railroads, and prosperity. The pamphlet emphasized that Indigenous people of the area were fading into the background: “The Indian with his pipe of peace has everywhere fallen back for the colonizing Britisher and American with his piece of pipe.” A beautiful town, a centre of trade and commerce had emerged, and there were few reminders of the Indigenous past, only “here and there an Indian trail and a few mounds … mark the last resting place of departed braves.”
In Janey Canuck in the West, there are numerous passages of racially charged condemnations of Indigenous people. Murphy described how one of their loggers was arrested for giving whiskey to an Indigenous woman who then burned to death by the camp fire. She showed no concern or sorrow for this woman and her family. She wrote that Indigenous people did not belong in the towns and cities, a theme she later developed in other publications. She was particularly harsh in condemnation of Indigenous women. She regretted that “good-looking maidens… soft-eyed little bundles of femininity must grow up into large dull squaws”. Their treatment at the hands of Indigenous men was part of the problem in her view. She wrote “The squaw is unquestionably worshipful of her lord,” who might sell her for a bottle of whisky to a white man. Yet she described at the same time the Indigenous woman as violent under the influence of alcohol; her “scrub woman” in Swan River was arrested for trying to kill her husband with a razor. Murphy disapproved of the Métis of Swan River, as she believed they had inherited “the worst traits of both races.”
Murphy’s books were best sellers. She was widely complimented for having enticed thousands of settlers to the West by providing a true picture of the life and opportunities for them. She was also praised for her wit, humour, and joyousness. According to one 1921 article “No Canadian, certainly no woman, has done more to spread Western Canada’s fame through the world than Janey Canuck. Her knowledge of the country, of conditions, her keen insight and accurate portrayals have lured thousands of hardy settlers to these provinces.” Murphy’s publications are all about the fortunes to be made, the healthy life to be had, and the superiority of the “northern” peoples, if white. Chapters began with passages from poems such as one entitled “Pathfinders” that celebrated “the right men, the white men.”
Emily Murphy’s hopes for the West rested on the ultimate disappearance of Indigenous people and she was optimistic, writing that the future of the ‘Indian’ was resolving itself as “A few years hence there will be no Indians. They will exist for posterity only in waxwork figures and in a few scant pages of history…. There is nothing for them in the end but death.” These were the ideas that Emily Murphy brought to her new location of Edmonton in 1907, where she was involved in many worthy causes in the interests of settler women’s legal and political rights and where she continued to condemn Indigenous people and conveyed her opinion that they would soon disappear. In Open Trails (1912) she described surveying various locations for potential investments including Prince Albert, writing that the town would be improved if the “Indians… could be induced to move on to the land. It is a problem to know what to do with the Indian who wanders slothfully around town, … He [sic] has acquired our language, customs, taste in drinks, and second-hand clothing, without our training of centuries in self-restraint and discipline.” This book sold over 60,000 copies at a time when 5,000 was considered a good sale. Murphy’s views were influential. She called on settlers to move West who would submerge and engulf the Indigenous residents and hasten their disappearance. Votes for settler women would strengthen the power and influence of settlers. Emily Murphy’s hopes for the West rested on the achievement of votes and personhood for settler women and the triumph of settler colonialism. These goals were intertwined and not disparate.
Sarah Carter FRSC is Professor and Henry Marshall Tory Chair in the Department of History, Classics and Religious Studies, and Faculty of Native Studies at the University of Alberta. From Saskatoon, she received her B.A. Hon. and M.A. from the University of Saskatchewan and Ph.D. from the University of Manitoba. She taught at the University of Calgary from 1992 to 2006. Her research focuses on the history of settler colonialism in Canada and in comparative colonial and borderlands perspectives. Her 2016 book Imperial Plots won several awards including the Governor General’s History Award for Scholarly Research. Her most recent book is Ours By Every Law of Right and Justice: Women and the Vote in the Prairie Provinces (2020). In 2020 she was awarded the Killam Prize in the Humanities.